Arts  

Nigerian art of the 80s in review – Part 1

I Am Watching You by Joe Musa, 3ft X 4ft, Acrylic on Canvas (2007)

The stage of this picturesque drama is Lagos: Our conception of the Artists of the 80’s in the development of Nigeria art history is capacious, not least because a full history of their contributions cannot be properly constructed without attention to relations among the corpus of participants. But there are many other reasons why this is intellectually necessary: a proper understanding of the concept of schools, for example, must be comparative (and thus cross-pollinate); and we are bound to acknowledge the complex role of economic, religious, and intellectual linkages as well as their connections with influences from other African or local art schools and possibly with Europe. These general points can be illustrated by various iconic examples: El Anatsui, a Ghanian sculptor, is the founder of the now popular two dimensional wood strewed works, with followings like Ndidi Dike, Ndubuisi Onah and Barthosa Nkrumeh.

John Kasuzi Matovu a Uganda ceramist, internationally acclaimed for his sculptural ceramics that mixes rhythmic subtlety with brazen bravado; was then lecturing in Benue Polytechnic, Ugbokolo. He was shaped by his experiences that he enacted in his pyrography works that was popularized by several artists, like Gift Elanu, Best Ochigbo, Ameh Adeyi, Oche Agebe, Bruno Chibuzor Ajunam, etc in that order.

It is this comparative; cross-national-pollination approach we hope to rear our attention on. These intercultural and disciplinary approaches we hope will enable us produce a richly contextualized analysis while retaining a principle focus within our locale of professional artistic activities. The core assures that those who have need of this work should have familiarity with the essential social, political, economic and cultural background, and a body of established questions central to the field.

Few names were already practically known preceding the 80’s. You constantly hear about them in the grapevine and if you are lucky you could meet most of them, like Yusuf Grillo, J.I. Akande, Okpu Eze, Clary Nelson Cole, Kolade Oshinowo, Gani Oduntokun, Cornelius Adegbegba, Obiora Udechukwu, Isiaka Osunde, David Dale, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Jossy Ajiboye, Dele Jegede, Ben Enwonwu, Irein Wangboje, Demas Nwoko, Abayomi Barber, Jimoh Akolo, El Anatsui, Solomon Akiga, Susanne Wenger and Uche Okeke all striding by and you had to, but revere, if not at their presence, at least at the stories of their artistic brilliance and conquest. These names virtually situated the 70’s History of Nigeria art as those who benefited from the FESTAC 77 artistic and financial boom.

Granted that from the pre and post 1960’s the pioneers made their recognizable contributions, but the 80’s was the acme that saw the high point of this development, a pointer to the coming of age of professionalism in Nigerian Art. These were the crop of artists who were into full time studio practice. Most at this time were amateurs by its definition; since they were holding full time paid employment, but we have allowed for a mix since there cannot be a full and total delineation.

The 80s boom became one of the busiest periods in the annals of Nigeria Art History. The set of artists that emerged at this period came with a mind-set of grit. There were few or no regular public commissions so they had to define their own strategy. This was a period when their contributions made art patronage attained a climax never before experienced in the art-scape of the nation.

In this explosive affluence, Visual Art became well esteemed, and accorded a distinctive dignity never before extended. I happen to have been part of this wave. It was a period of great artistic rumble that took the art-scene by storm.

The ones directly responsible for the evolvement of the 80’s were a handful variegated bunch with legendary astuteness, narrative frenzy, and creative dexterity. They did not have any other jobs but lived off their works. A few artists were part of this artistic revolution. Those that became players in this period are at the center-of-attention of this manuscript. They are the ones that took the gauntlet and went head-on to reinventing the sector, and encouraged private collections. This regular variegated bunch came to be regarded exceedingly high and socially established as a consequence for the daring faith they took. They are the bedrock for the present artistic potency that is now being enjoyed by the present crop of young contemporary artists.

The art went through this major phase from 1980’s – to late 90’s, a frenzy that engulfed the stakeholders: buyers, collectors, dealers, the artists themselves, new converts and even opportunists all meeting at the melting pot, in the exhibition halls and the artist studios.

Lagos was that melting pot.

* An excerpt from Joe Musa’s soon to be released book on Nigerian art. Musa was at a time Director General of National Gallery of Art (NGA)

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